Life Among the Toons

November 18th, 2005  |  Published in games  |  2 Comments

“Something’s gumming up the plumbing

Poor Luigi’s in a bind

Giant turtles out to get him

Creepy crabs are right behind

Fighter Flies! Jeeper Jipes!

They’re all coming out the pipes!

MARIO, WHERE ARE YOU?!”

I think I remember one thing about Nintendo from high school: It wasn’t Atari, so it sucked. Nintendo from college and post-college sucked, too, for reasons I think had something to do with the lack of blood codes for Mortal Kombat and a lot of “Nintendo’s an eeeeevil game monopoly!” hand-waving.

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The lack of blood codes … that was the big one. I was an adult, and I didn’t want some nanny game in my living room, protecting me from ADULT CONTENT I WAS ENTITLED TO! If I’m old enough to die for my country, then damnit I’m old enough to see a fountain of blood when Kano knocks Scorpion’s block off.

Over a decade of living in the largely “adult” wilderness that is Sony Playstation and PS2 gaming, though, has left me feeling less than satisfied. When I had a lot of time to hammer out the intricacies of Wipeout, the fussy and “realism”-oriented “seriousness” of adult games was fine. Now, I’ve got less time and usually don’t play for more than five or ten minutes at a time (unless it’s a puzzler and I’ve got something on my mind) and my Nintendo DS is a much nicer companion. Now that Mario Kart DS has arrived at the house, I think I might soon become a Nintendo bigot.

It has very bright colors. The characters are all hunkered over on little karts, and they’re the same people I’ve been dealing with at the arcade since I had a paper route, plus a few I don’t recognize because I deprived myself of any Mario stuff between high school and, well, two months ago. So there’s a skeletal turtle and Donkey Kong is a good guy now and there are a few more characters I’m going to assume are beloved of Nintendo people.

The physics of the game are forgiving and broad … Bumping into someone doesn’t result in a stall or explosion, sliding around the corners is easy, little accleration pads are plentiful. It’s possible to win the first circuit without picking up the manual, even after accidentally starting the race in reverse because the home button on a Nintendo game seems to usually be the middle right instead of bottom (as on a Playstation).

I’ve played kart games on Playstation, but they’ve never been quite right. The developers (in the games I’ve seen) seem to have decided that since the kart genre is supposed to be forgiving and more “fun” than “intense,” it’s o.k. to just slow everything down instead of working out better physics. It’s a cognitive block they’re dealing with … like they’ve forgotten they’re in control of the game world, so they can mess with the models. The resulting mess has always seemed like “Wipeout or Need for Speed, only using non-hovering cars with throttle governors.” That sucks.

Mario Kart seems to get the notion that the inherent unreality of, you know, heat-seeking turtle shell missiles and the ability to transmogrify into a gigantic flying bullet that travels at high speeds and knocks over everything in its path pretty much shatters the need to bother with realistic crash and bump models. And it understands that to most of us, travelling in an open cab about six inches off the ground seems really, really fast. So Mario Kart feels fast, and sort of intense, but also fun and forgiving.

And I guess I prefer the mascots. Where Sega ushered in the era of edgy, adultish mascots with Sonic, Nintendo held what it had. Mario is still this little dude who has adventures, but retains his fundamentally positive world view. There’s no self-mutilating self-loathing to be found in him. I guess Wario is “evil,” but it’s the sort of “evil” that seems to involve wanting to win a lot, and laughing at you when he does.

I don’t want to wander too far into that territory, so I’ll leave it at this: Mario feels like an organic extension of Nintendo’s overall world view. He rose to his position in the Nintendo stable of characters over 20 years … not as an exercise in board-room mascot generation like Sonic or Crash Bandicoot. You know … “People can get a cheeseburger anywhere, ok? They come to Chotchkie’s for the atmosphere and the attitude. That’s what the flair’s about. It’s about fun.” And that’s what Sonic’s about.

Anyhow … far afield.

Mario Kart is a blast. It’s the first game on the DS that’s made me wish I was wealthy enough to go out and buy a DS and a copy of one game for everyone I know, which brings us to the extra layer of cool on top of an already fun games: Nintendo’s wireless game service.

The DS comes with built-in WiFi. For the games on the market up until a few days ago, that meant that a group of DS’s could peer up for multi-player action similar to how Apple’s Rendezvous works with iChat … a zero-configuration, “just works” network. Nintendo’s done some cool things with that already. If not everyone owns a game, some of the games can be cloned from DS to DS wirelessly, allowing people to play a multi-player version easily. That’s very cool, and very different from the sort of mentality that has Sony sticking rootkits on everyone’s PC.

Mario Kart takes advantage of something a little better than that: If you’re near a wireless access point that’s either open or you know the WEP key for, the DS can peer up with Nintendo’s Internet match service and you can play other Mario Kart racers in your region or around the world.

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Setting that up on my own wireless network was a snap. It took less than two minutes, with the only hangup being that the DS has a hard time with WAPs that have SSID beaconing turned off. If I’d felt like being a moderate jerk, I probably could have peered up through my neighbor’s completely open WAP, but I wanted the best signal available.

Anyhow … within five minutes I had a match with three other racers. The worst part of the overall experience is to be found here. It takes a while to find other people looking for a race (maybe two to three minutes), and it’s entirely random unless you know someone else’s friend code. You also can’t interact with the other racers. I didn’t know anything about the batch I ended up with besides their handles and their logos (mine’s a three-eyed smiley, and I’ve chosen the nom de course “MutantMike”). Courses are picked based on a group vote. The majority pick wins, and if there is no majority the game server picks one at random from the player’s choices.

The online racing experience is perfect. Very smooth, no sense of lag or latency. Sometimes people suddenly drop out with no comment on the game’s part. Others report that a high proportion of the dropouts seem to be losing badly when they disappear, so I’d be inclined to chalk that up to bugs in human firmware vs. the wireless software.

I’ve gotten my ass kicked repeatedly from my office, the futon downstairs, and my bed, but it’s a ton of fun. The powerups scattered throughout the game offer decent equalizers, so if you’re having a bad race it’s possible to get a good powerup, focus a little more, and pull out a win at the last minute. And as surely as someone online is always way better than you, there’s usually someone lurking around who’s way more lame … or at least drunk and off his game.

“So you’re saying it’s fun?”

Yes. It’s fun. Really, really fun.

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